Exclusive interview: Dalai Lama's political successor Dr Lobsang Sangay — Tibetan Prime Minister-in-exile
By Roy Strider | Eesti Päevaleht
ON THE WEB, 23 February 2012
Honourable Prime Minister, my condolences to you and all other Tibetans for the loss of people killed as a result of political and religious persecution and genocide in Tibet. Horrified, I grieve with you especially for Tibetans Lobsang Phuntsok, Tsewang Norbu, Lobsang Kalsang, Lobsang Kunchok, Kelsang Wangchuck, Khayang, Choephel, Tapey, Norbu Damdrul, Tenzin Wangmo, Dawa Tsering, Palden Choetso, Tenzin Phuntsok, Tennyi, Tsultrim, Sonam Wangyal, Losang Jamyang, Damchoe, Lobsang Gyatso, Tenzin Choedron, Sonam Rabyang and Rinzin Dorje.
Dr Lobsang Sangay, you have been the democratically-elected Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration, or government-in-exile, for few hundred days now. Please tell me simply, as one human being to another — how does it feel? Did you expect this amount of work when you were running for this position?
Hmm… obviously I knew it would be a difficult job, because it is the Tibetan freedom struggle. And the word “struggle” sums it up — it is a struggle, alright? Having said that, this fourteenth Kashag has been comparatively the busiest, perhaps, Kashag — at least in these first four months, compared to the other Kashag. A lot of things have happened, as you mentioned, so many self-immolations, top religious leaders meeting, you know, and many urgent, critical matters. So, did I think such things would happen? I did not. Did I think His Holiness would devolve all his political power? I did not. But I can’t complain because I fought for this position. Number two, I am a Tibetan and a Tibetan has to take responsibility of the Tibet issue. So, I did not expect, yet I expected it, you know — that job will be difficult and I have to do it and I am doing the best I can, and I’m determined to represent and reflect the aspirations of the Tibetan people.
Thank you! Tibetan culture and Buddhism are inseparable. I have seen prayer beads or mala in your hands as well. What is your daily practice of Buddhism, if any? How much does Buddhism help you?
As you can see, in religion there has been a change. His Holiness, you know, is a Lama, and our previous Kalon Tripa — Samdhong Rinpoche, is also a lama. And I happen to be a lay person. So, for them, I think, the religion in Buddhism guides them. Buddhism guides them because they have taken vows. As for me, I have not taken vows, so Buddhism does not guide me per se, like them. Having said that, I am a Tibetan, which means I am Buddhist as well. And I take Buddhism quite seriously. And I have malas and on a daily basis I recite mantras from time to time. And sometimes it’s just a habit do have a mala and take it out and start, you know, playing with mala. So I … I wish I could have a daily regiment of prayers, prostrations, things like that. I don’t. Because as I said, this job — it is very time consuming. But in between I do the best I can. And I do attend religious teachings, I do go to monasteries and I have lot of respect for Buddhist scholars and lamas and monks, yes.
Thuje che!* Dr Lobsang Sangay, I have very little confidence in the governments of countries when it comes to setting Tibet free. I think that political and business interests arising from the general, systematic nature of the governments discourage their activities in the question of Tibet. That is why the role of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibetan NGOs and the Tibetans’ supporters in spreading the information seems even more important. I believe that real changes originate in the inside, in the Chinese and Tibetan territory, and that the outside world can only do their part in spreading the word and continuously drawing attention to the problems in China and Tibet. But it is difficult to compete with the Chinese lobbying. In your opinion, what are the possibilities of the citizens of the so-called free world in helping to improve the situation of Tibet?
Universality of freedom, it is established now. Some scholars used to say that Islam and democracy are not compatible. But The Arab Spring has made very clear that Islam and democracy are compatible. And Baltic states are also very good examples because at one time even till late eighties, no-one thought that Baltic states could be free. Because I remember asking some Estonian friends and they said … Well, I said: “Did you believe that Baltic states could be free?” And she said: “Well… in our head — no, in our heart — yes.”
So, it is proven that freedom is universal. From the collapse of Soviet Union to Arab Spring to Colour Revolutions, it is proven. So people around the world should also look at Tibet as one part of the movement, the same part of the movement, of freedom being a basic right of the Tibetan people and we should be entitled to it. And the governments around the world should also see Tibetan Administration as a democratic administration because people in thirty countries participated, voted, and elected me as the political leader which means I have the democratic mandate. None of the Chinese leaders in Tibet have democratic mandate, but I have it. So based on that, the international community should support Tibet and Tibetan people.
Dr Sangay, you are a “Harvard boy”, a man with a global grasp and world view, and for me, in many ways very similar to another Buddhist government’s Prime Minister. I mean the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bhutan, Jigmi Y Thinley, who also pays a lot of attention to global environmental problems. A few days ago I was travelling to this mountain town of Dharamshala from Bangalore to attend the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In the night bus, I was sitting next to Dorje Tsering, a monk from the monastery of Drepung. “My lungs are aching,” I told Dorje. “This pollution is getting worse every year,” he sighed. “My eyes are burning,” I said after a while. “I really fear that we are killing this planet,” replied the monk and opened the curtains, “Do you see?”
“I cannot see anything,” I said. We laughed bitterly. There was just smog everywhere, noise and poisonous fumes. Your office is in India, the home of many Tibetans in exile. India is on the same planet as my home. Leaving aside the other big polluting industrial countries such as China and the USA for example, to what extent (if at all) is it possible for you to influence the Indian government and people so that they would become more aware of the severity of this problem? Are we indeed killing our planet?
Globally, yes — environmental pollution, water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution, all kinds of pollution and now this issue of global warming, climate change. And Tibet is also central to the global environment, because ten major rivers flow from Tibet to various parts of Asia. And the rivers of Asia provide, you know, feed, about 47% of the world population: India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan. So vitally important! And also Tibet has the third largest reserve of ice, after the Antarctic and Arctic, so it’s also vitally important. So, for the global environment, Tibet is very-very important. Unfortunately the world, the international community, is not coming around as rapidly, as fast and as strongly as they should. And I wish and I hope that the international community will see that environment is very important and from the Buddhist point of view — sustainable development, environment-friendly development is very important.
I will now tell you a story. You probably know that after the last time His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Estonia, my homeland, our country’s biggest daily newspaper published a 16-page propaganda paper of the People’s Republic of China, that oddly enough looked like the special issue of an Estonian newspaper, and not a paid advertising. In addition to that, the Chinese government naturally refused to admit Estonian politicians and scientists into the country for some time. The Estonians grinned at the visa refusal but were most resentful about the whole newspaper affair. A scandal broke out, the Estonian as well as foreign media responded noisily. A while later an official newspaper of the Central Tibetan Administration, your government, was published as a supplement of the same daily paper. With a circulation of 65,000, the issue was called the Voice of Tibet. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that an official newspaper of the CTA was published abroad with such circulation and as the supplement of a major newspaper.
And then something odd happened. Not one Estonian media channel, newspaper, radio or TV channel broadcast the publishing of the newspaper. The neighbouring Latvian news portals featured two stories on the CTA newspaper but believe it or not — those news vanished without a trace in less than ten minutes! I know the subject thoroughly since I happen to be the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. You wrote the newspaper’s first page opinion column. Thus an extremely strange situation came about, extraordinary even — the newspaper was accompanied by absolute silence. But Estonia is a small country. A month passed, and rumour spread about an employee of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who boasted about their biggest work achievement being the hushing up of a Tibetan newspaper’s publication. In the light of the events, knowing that the Eastern department of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very China-minded, I do not think this rumour is a fabrication. Please tell me why is it necessary to hush up the publication of a Tibetan newspaper in a reportedly free and democratic country?
I don’t know the exact details of the case, but I do believe that freedom of speech has to be universal. Because Estonia and the Baltic states fought for and gained their freedom, based on democratic principles. After they freed themselves from the Soviet Union and for so many years, when they were under the Communist system, one ought to know that censorship and the denial of free speech harms not just Estonians but also people anywhere in the World. So, free speech and democratic principles are the one, are the issues that the Estonians fought for, and gained. And they should preserve it as a precious gift that they have. And the only way for respecting the freedom that they have gained is to recognize and provide a free speech to others as well. So in the case of Tibet we welcome the Estonian people and Estonian media recognizing the denial of free speech for the Tibetan people inside Tibet and to give as much coverage to the issue. Because our issue is very similar to what Estonia faced in seventies and eighties.
Most of the world’s people do not really understand what is it exactly that the Tibetans want. As exactly as possible, I mean. The policy of the Central Administration is the Middle-Way Approach: an autonomy within the People’s Republic of China is desired, not independence. Why don’t we give people a short explanation on the topic?
Umm… there is a group within the Tibetan society which advocates independence, complete separation from China. But based on pragmatism and mutual interest, His Holiness the Dalai Lama advocates the Middle-Way which means devoid of extremes — extremes of independence or … other extremes of, you know, colonialism. So the Middle-Way is a genuine autonomy within China, within the genuine autonomy, within the framework of the Chinese constitution. So the Tibetans get the genuine autonomy, but they will be within China, thereby not challenging China’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. So that way China gains a lot from it. Because China will remain intact, Tibetans will gain by having autonomy, thereby having the own identity, culture, language — basic freedom. So, it’s a win-win proposition for both sides.
How do you feel about future changes in China? Chinese government is going to change quite soon…
The changes are happening everywhere. Like the Soviet Union, Colour Revolution, now the Arab Spring, you know… So changes are happening everywhere and changes are bound to come in China as well. When it will come, we don’t know. But whatever the Chinese people want, eventually will be reflected one way or another. And as far as the Tibetans are concerned also, we know and we will gain our basic freedom eventually.
Thank you for your time and honesty. On 22 February, the Tibetans started celebrating their New Year’s Eve — Losar. Most of the world, however, was about to greet the new year recently. Many people fear the end of the world that is said to arrive according to the Mayan calender. I wish for the Mayas’ prophecy to become true. I wish for the world of carelessness, selfishness and ignorance to end and for people’s thinking to become more caring and sympathetic. What is your New Year’s wish?
That this world would be a better world for everybody, and those who are poor and downtrodden would gain more freedom, gain more rights and gain more comfort. Accordingly, that the Tibetans would also gain more freedom as their basic right and there’d be… peace be in this world.
* Thuje che! = Thank you! (in Tibetan)